Howard Manns

Monash University

Linguists by definition are interested in language and the impact it has on society. So, some of us take a perverse interest in the language of government and university policy. Policies are words meant to wield power over people. And, when it comes to government and university policies, the words wield power over us as scholars of the humanities.

A recent media post provided me the onus to reflect on a word that hinted at the past, present and future of the humanities. A journalist from an international arts and culture magazine contacted me about the word innovation. In the lead up to this year’s Australian election, the sitting conservative government has released policy documents promising an innovation boom.

Young people, like the journalist, were curious and sceptical. They wanted a better sense of how the government was using innovation and what impact this might have on Australia’s future. At the onset, innovation seemed to sit within the domain of business for the government.

Innovation: From the humanities to economics

To understand its use, I went back to the start. The word innovate entered English sometime during the 16th century. It derives from the Latin innovatus, the past participle of innovãre, ‘to renew’ or ‘alter’. The element nov in innovate and its predecessor is closely related to the modern English new.

There was an influx of hundreds of Latin borrowings like innovate in the 16th and 17th centuries. Intellectuals of the time doubted whether lowly English words were worthy of high scientific and philosophical concepts. Consequently, one innovation, if you will, to the English language was the introduction of Greco-Latinate words like innovate.

Some of the earliest uses of innovation related to such changes to language, alongside innovation’s use for revolutions, but philosophers and with reference to the state of mankind. In other words, notions of innovation were initially quite closely aligned with the humanities. For instance, linguistic innovations were in the crosshairs of American Quaker Lindley Murray, when he penned his famed 18th century English Grammar. 

Yet, the industrial revolution saw increasing use of innovation for technological inventions and innovation’s subsequent use in the domain of business and commerce. In the late 1930s, economist Joseph Schumpeter played no small role in divorcing innovation from its humanities sense, with his focus on ‘Creative Destruction’. Schumpeter, in part through this concept, proposed that a company’s success was tied to its ability to encourage entrepreneurship and institutional change.

Schumpeter’s views gave rise, over time, to innovation economics, which has risen to particular prominence within the past few decades. In support of innovation economics, economist Nathan Rosenberg has written ‘innovative activity has been the single, most important component of long-term economic growth’.

Enter Australia’s Innovation Boom

Schumpeter’s view of innovation, if indirectly, underlies the current vision set out in the Australian government’s policy. Collective references to business/commerce in this policy outstretch those to universities at a rate of 4:5:1. There are frequent references to entrepreneurs (which Schumpeter would certainly approve of) but there are no references to language, culture or anything that might be construes as humanities-related in this policy.

To these ends, I saw where the young journalist was coming from. When government and business conspire about words and meanings, meanings don’t just get changes; words get led down dark alleys and battered.

For instance, as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg notes, the younger Bush administration wielded entrepreneur and innovation as powerful tools for fighting for corporate tax cuts and justifying unemployment figures. Bush argued that corporate tax cuts would impede innovation. Bush extended the label entrepreneur to include unemployed people who were doing odd jobs to make ends meet.

So, what does Australian innovation mean for universities and the humanities? It’s easy to be cynical and say ‘not much’ without hopping into bed with business, even as a part-time lover.

But a linguist playing devil’s advocate might point out the word cynic can be linked to the Ancient Greek kynikos ‘dog-like’. Cynic is a distant relative of the modern English word canine and one popular link between cynics and canines sees them both as shameless ‘snarlers’ at conventional meaning.

With this in mind, it’s worth noting a few positive aspects of innovation in policy, including that of Australia’s newest innovation boom. Such policies encourage collaboration between entities which wouldn’t normally collaborate, like universities and industries.

Moreover, in this economically-minded world, this emphasis on collaboration has an empirical basis. The National Innovation System, upon which documents like the Australia’s innovation boom are based, emerged from the study of nations, like Japan and Germany, which have been successful at facilitating innovation.

The National Innovation System takes as a starting point that the research system’s goal is innovation and maximising the flow of information across a complex set of institutional relationships is among the best strategies for assuring the national success of innovation.

So where next for innovation and the humanities?

In light of the slippery uses of words like innovation and entrepreneur, it’s good to see young people like the journalist, in the words of the late Australian Don Chipp, ‘keeping the bastards honest’. To a certain degree, we do need to be cynical and snarl at conventional meanings of words like innovation, especially when such words marginalize the humanities. Yet, we as humanities scholars might also take on this modern sense of innovation as a challenge and think innovatively about how we can engage with these policies. After all, the humanities gifted innovation to economics and commerce. We should think how innovatively about how we can keep a seat at the innovation table, even if it is now chaired by the more economically minded.

One thought on “What happens when an ‘innovation boom’ leaves the humanities behind?

  • June 30, 2016 at 8:07 am

    New institutional economics is helpful here in pointing to the need for institutional innovation, e.g. Micro finance to enable development. Then we can look at the discourses around such things, and make hesdeay


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.